Tom Rochon, president of Ithaca College, has announced his opposition to the American Studies Association’s endorsement of an academic boycott of Israeli higher education institutions in a statement he released via Intercom on Jan. 9.
The ASA National Council passed a resolution Dec. 4 in support of the boycott. The ASA states in the resolution that the Israeli occupation currently denies Palestinians human rights and academic freedom and negatively impacts their working and research conditions. National members of the ASA publically endorsed the boycott Dec. 15.
In a similar situation in 2007, when the University and College Union — a British academic organization — proposed an Israeli boycott, former Ithaca College president Peggy Ryan
Williams declined to sign a petition opposing the boycott despite pressure from colleges around the country.
Eric Cheyfitz, professor of American studies and humane letters at Cornell University and national ASA member, said the ASA is answering the call from the Palestinian Civil Society for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel. This call initiated the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in 2005 to put political and economic pressure on Israel to comply with their demands for equality.
Rochon stated in a Jan. 9 Intercom announcement that the college’s support of academic freedom leads him to oppose a boycott that would prevent free exchange of ideas.
President Rochon declined to expand on his public statement.
Igor Khokhlov, Jewish chaplain and executive director of Hillel at the college, said in an email statement that he supports President Rochon’s statement in opposition to the boycott.
“Like many countries today, Israel certainly faces political challenges; it also borders with countries that deny its right to exist,” Khokhlov said. “Israel, however, managed to build a system of world-leading academic institutions that deliver life-changing products and contribute daily to the academic research and betterment of this world. I believe that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians will be resolved only through a dialogue and negotiations, not through prohibitions and boycotts.”
In response to Rochon’s statement, Beth Harris, associate professor of politics at the college, invited Eric Cheyfitz, professor of American studies and humane letters at Cornell University and ASA member, to the college for a guest lecture about the ASA resolution and a basis for open discussion about the boycott. The event will be held at 7 p.m. Feb. 25 in the Klingenstein Lounge.
The argument of academic freedom is one that Cheyfitz said he refutes using the tenets outlined by the American Association of University Professors. He said the AAUP’s definition of academic freedom protects the liberty of individual teachers and students, whereas the boycott targets the institutions in Israel.
“Specifically, academic freedom is intended to protect the work of these individuals from the interference of the institutions in which they pursue this work,” he said. “The ASA boycott does not substantially interfere with this freedom.”
Harris said many American university presidents use the academic freedom of Israeli people as an argument opposing the boycott for political reasons, so as to not step on the heavily financed and militant relationship between the U.S. government and Israel.
“They use what seems like a neutral rights-based claim to avoid dealing with the substantive issue … the ongoing repression and apartheid system of laws,” she said in an email.
Cheyfitz concurred and said for college presidents to support the boycott would risk alienating portions of alumni donor pools and funding from the federal government.
“It’s a way of simply supporting the status quo,” he said.
Freshman Luna Olavarria Gallegos, president of the college’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, said a strong student movement raising awareness from a Palestinian perspective has been surging across the nation in recent years.
“There is a certain change, and I think it starts on college campuses,” Olavarria Gallegos said.